By Nancy H. Blakey
I first encountered boredom as a child growing up in a big family in Idaho. In the summers, after chores, my mother would push us out the back door into a seemingly dull landscape of wheat fields and irrigation ditches. "Find something to do!" she would order.
Boredom is a ticklish thing. It itches, but you don't know where or what to scratch. It makes you sigh and snort. You are testy and a little fearful. It feels dangerous and forever, as if it will dog you past all adventure and fun and the day will draw to a close, empty and meaningless. In the end, we had no choice. We were driven to catch frogs and build forts. We made lemonade stands and played baseball games with invented rules and moving bases.
Over the years, I moved reluctantly through boredom's idle territory. I would be a different person today without the paths that it delivered. For boredom often pressed me to say "yes" to strange tasks and exotic foods. It nudged me to read extraordinary books, to take walks and talk to strangers. Boredom has volunteered me, sent me to foreign countries, and pushed me out of dead-end jobs. Boredom led me to believe that the only way forward is through.
I watch my four children with their own bouts of boredom, their energy friction with the universe as they attempt to muscle their way out of it. They wheedle and plead for television, Nintendo, high-tech computer games-anything to shake off boredom's terrible grip. Now is the time for your own adventures, I tell them. Whittle sticks, make a space station with Legos, catch some frogs, wash the dog, build a fort. I did when I was your age!
Of course the children refuse. It sounds utterly tedious. Worse than boredom. Boredom is an invitation to our own unique party of events, not a teacher's or a parent's. It is a personal itch that needs to be scratched.
When we respond to boredom's invitation, something magical happens. Passions are born. Interests are developed. An inner fund of resources evolves-the same personal resources that guide and prompt us into a meaningful life. Without this fund, boredom can push our children into self-destruction: drugs, violence, and random pranks that eat up their young lives and spit them out. We are left to pick up the pieces and wonder what went wrong.
We are rightfully fearful of boredom and its negative consequences. Too much time and money, little purpose, and boredom are a lethal combination. In an attempt to save our children, we sign them up for sports and classes. We let them watch a crazy amount of television and spend days at the computer.
I want to allow my children to be bored while they are young and under my watchful eye. To measure it into their bones and muscles like a rare fuel to propel them forward. To preempt the time spent on television and organized activities and have them spend it instead on claiming their imaginations. For in the end, that is all we have. If a thing cannot be imagined first-a cake, a relationship, a cure for AIDS-it cannot be.
Life is bound by what we can envision. I cannot plant imagination into my children. I can, however, provide an environment where their creativity is not just another mess to clean up but welcome evidence of grappling successfully with boredom. It is possible for boredom to deliver us to our best selves, the ones that long for risk and illumination and unspeakable beauty. If we sit still long enough, we may hear the call behind boredom. With practice, we may have the imagination to rise up from the emptiness and answer.
Nancy H. Blakey lives on an island in Puget Sound, Washington, with her husband, Greg, and their children Jenna (21), Ben (19), Nick (15), and Daniel (7). She is the author of Mudpies: Recipes for Invention; 101 Alternatives to Television; Lotions, Potions and Slime; and Boredom Busters, all from Tricycle Press. She is currently working on a book of outdoor activities and welcomes boredom whenever possible.